Willie Nelson has sung ”Georgia on My Mind” for former president Jimmy Carter many times — first, on the campaign trail in 1976, and as recently as the 2002 ceremony in Oslo where Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He serenades his ”favorite president ever” again on Dec. 4’s CMT Homecoming: President Carter in Plains special, filmed in Carter’s still-minuscule Georgia hometown, where EW caught up with the former farm boys and occasional jogging partners.
The Bush girls claim their dad is down with OutKast. But in ’76, it was radical for a candidate to quote Dylan. Did you feel like you were doing something dangerous, aligning yourself with countercultural characters like him and Willie?
CARTER I think that was one of the reasons I won, because I did align myself with characters like these, who were admired by hundreds of millions around the world…. I think as much as any performer who has ever lived, Willie has had an intimate and natural relationship with working people…. When I was in trouble in the White House or needed to be alone, just to relax — I’m a fly fisherman, and I would tie flies in my study, where Truman used to work, while Willie Nelson’s songs played on the hi-fi…. So all the good things I did or, of course, all the mistakes I’ve made, you could kind of blame half that on Willie.
Willie, you’re political in some ways, stumping for Kucinich this year, but apolitical in others; you haven’t sung the antiwar song you wrote for him in concert.
NELSON I think it’s important we have a change in the direction our country is going, but I sing to Democrats and Republicans every night. I don’t want to do or say anything that’s going to make half my audience get up and leave the building…. I look at it like my job is to bring people together, singing ”Amazing Grace” [at the end of a show].
Willie’s book said he smoked pot on the White House roof. Mr. President, what did you know and when did you know it?
CARTER I would guess that Willie and my sons knew a lot more about that than I did. That was one of the things that Willie and I never did discuss much. But I don’t think there’s much doubt that there was—
NELSON Actually, short-term memory — I don’t remember a lot that happened then.
CARTER [Both laughing] Yeah, my memory’s kind of short on that subject, too.